The Poetry of Insomnia

07/14/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated Nov 17, 2011

Medical experts say that 30% to 50% of us occasionally suffer from insomnia, your intrepid poetry columnist included. Your anxiety kicks up, your heart starts to race a little bit, the sheets start to itch and...crap. Have you been there? Then comes the counting and the breathing exercises. I know, I know, there are drugs that help you with this stuff--Ambien and the one Abe Lincoln and the talking beaver shill for--but I won't take them. My girlfriend used them when she had to work an early morning shift, and I watched her brain turn to oatmeal a few times too many as she nodded off, speaking in tongues.

So what are the nocturnal to do? As the poet Gregory Orr wrote in his poem "Insomnia Song," you can always "haul anchor" and "pick up a book and read all night." It's my preferred method of coping with sleeplessness. I find that reading Chaucer works well. Nothing against him as a poet, but he has those lulling rhythms and long passages to get lost in. One of the less exciting Shakespeare plays would probably work just as well. Try Henry IV, Part II, wherein the King says:

How many thousand of my poorest subjects

Are at this hour asleep! O sleep, O gentle sleep,
Nature's soft nurse, how have I frighted thee,
That thou no more wilt weigh my eyelids down
And steep my senses in forgetfulness?

It's nice during those late and lonely hours to know you've got some company. And you do have company. Wherever in the world your bedside lamp is lit, there surely are a dozen poets--tortured souls that we are--nearby, awake and brooding. The proof is in Lisa Russ Spaar's excellent anthology of insomnia-inspired poetry Acquainted With the Night (from Columbia University Press) from which I've pulled some of my favorite sleepless poems.

The great Russian poet Alexander Pushkin nails it for me in his "Lines Written at Night During Insomnia" (Translated by D.M. Thomas):

I can't sleep; no light burns;

All round, darkness, irksome sleep.
Only the monotonous
Ticking of the clock,
The old wives chatter of fate,
Trembling of the sleeping night,
Mouse-like scurrying of life...
Why do you disturb me?
What do you mean tedious whispers?
Is it the day I have wasted
Reproaching me or murmuring?
What do you want from me?
Are you calling me or prophesying?
I want to understand you,
I seek a meaning in you...

It's that desire to find meaning that's so haunting (and aggravating) to the sleepless: the thoughts keeping you awake; the knot of anxieties. Dana Gioia expounds on this idea in this excerpt from "Insomnia":

But now you must listen to the things you own,

all that you've worked for these past few years,
the murmur of property, of things in disrepair,
the moving parts about to come undone,
and twisting in the sheets remember all
the faces you could not bring yourself to love.

How many voices have escaped you until now,
the venting furnace, the floorboards underfoot,
the steady accusations of the clock
numbering the minutes no one will mark.
The terrible clarity this moment brings,
the useless insight, the unbroken dark.

I'm particularly drawn to Gioia's choice of "the useless insight," since the worries that keep me up at night, and the epiphanies that follow them, rarely matter in the morning. No doubt it's far better, if you're able, to stop worrying and embrace those late hours. I'm envious of Whitman, who wrote in "A Clear Midnight":

This is thy hour O Soul, thy free flight into the wordless,

Away from books, away from art, the day erased, the lesson
done,Thee fully forth emerging, silent, gazing, pondering the
themes thou lovest best, Night, sleep, death and the stars.